This has been touted as Takeshi Miike’s hundredth film – though few filmographers will have the stamina to check up on the claim, and the IMDb suggests it’s only his 99th director credit. Don’t worry, he’s tossed off three more movies since – so however you rate it, he’s crashed through the century barrier and thus may have set a record unmatched by any living, working filmmaker outside the adult entertainment sector. Miike’s restless industry is all the more remarkable for keeping up after he’s moved beyond micro-budget scurrilousness into studio-type productions. He is at once Japan’s Harmony Korine and its JJ Abrams, its Troma and its Disney … and if the price paid for that is the odd individual dud film and even dead spots in otherwise superbly-crafted epics, then you can rest assured there’s another shedload of Miike coming your way soon and there’s bound to be something you’ll like. I don’t usually mix my film comments with notes on my fiction, but with my novel Anno Dracula One Thousand Monsters – which has elements in common with Miike’s 2005 reinvention of the Great Yokai War franchise – just published, I should mention that if I’d seen Blade of the Immortal before I wrote that book I’d probably have borrowed the bloodworms that make its scarred yojimbo functionally immortal for one of my key supporting characters.
Like quite a few Miike films, this is a live-action reboot of a franchise that’s been around in other forms – a long-running manga, animated features, etc. This also gives him a chance to homage (and parody) the classical samurai film stylings of Akira Kurosawa after a career in which his period swordplay pictures have owed more to the Lady Snowblood or Baby Cart blood-geysering conventions. In a black and white prologue, disgraced but honourable sword-swinger Manji (Takuya Kimura) wades into an exaggeratedly huge crowd of villains (not for the last time) and leaves them sliced up and dead in the street in a manner which recalls the rough and ready rude moves of Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo or Red Beard (a non-swordplay film with one of the best fight scenes ever staged). Later nods to the Kurosawa canon include the hero using a gadget blade to chop all his firewood at once, a reference to a gag in Seven Samurai, and naming the villainous crew of fighters who reject all schools and use all weapons the Itto-Ryu, after the duel-of-a-single-stroke technique featured in the climax of Sanjuro. In the opening origin scene, needlessly reprised in dialogue later, Manji sees his sister murdered in front of him – and he was only refraining from suicide because he semi-accidentally killed her husband and drove her mad enough not to know the difference between a horse turd and a rice ball – and suffers hideous facial injuries while slaughtering the horde of bounty hunters responsible. An 800-year-old woman passes on the blessing-curse of immortality by seeding his wounds with bloodworms that can reattach his severed hand and heal his guts but give him back a squashed eye or smooth over a cross-face scar.
Fifty years later, young Rin (Hana Sugisaki) shows up at Manji’s shack seeking vengeance because Anotsu Kagehisa (Sota Fukushi) has killer her dojo-running father in a duel and let his many minions ‘sport’ with her mother – though he prissily refuses to let them rape the child. Anotsu’s Itto-Ryu faction includes a range of supervillain-like guest stars – the first and worst of them is a masked paedophile who wears the severed heads of Rin’s parents as epaulettes – who come on and fight the unkillable, but not unwoundable reluctant hero. Tetsuya Oishi’s script, from Hiroaki Samura’s manga series, gets a litte crowded and episodic with all these guest turns, and some of the warm-up bouts feel tipped in, including a tussle with a masked spiky anime-hairdo peasant revolutionary, another weary immortal and an oddly honourable female swordfighter pledged to Anotsu’s cause. The film seems to settle into a rut of having Manji kill Anotsu’s minions while lecturing the kid – who feels a lot like a Japanese version of the girl from True Grit – about how this isn’t likely to make her feel better. Then, more complications arise as Manji is joined by Shiro (Hayato Ichihara), a bounty hunter more reprehensible than the main antagonist, and Anotsu finds himself the victim of scheming lesser forces and marked for extermination by the government and his own sensei. That still doesn’t make us like the cold bastard much, and so many corpses pile up around Manji and Anotsu that it seems they’ll only start on each other after every other able-bodied killer in Japan is dead in the dirt.
Blade of the Immortal has a lot of short-lived extras and screen-filling action with many edged weapons, but it all seems to take place on very few exteriors in a scrubby wilderness (with one spectacular gore moment on a rocky waterfall) that feels a little like a limbo. The characters are vivid but thin as a comic book page, sometimes defined by their scars and their fighting styles, and the maunderings about the futility of bloody revenge in the middle of a movie basically celebrating the same have a kind of smugness which blunts the spectacle. And the hero’s look of constant stomach pain, though understandable in a seppuku-obsessed society, eventually wears out is welcome too. But there’s still plenty to savour here.